While it is by no means objective, the prank video by Burger King on the subject is an easy-to-digest (pun intended) explanation of the effects of ending net neutrality which immediately went viral. The 3-minute video could lead into a class discussion of the subject. It is also worth asking why BK, which is about as far as possible from being a telecommunications company, would make a video on this subject. The answer seems to be in Burger King’s audience objective; its ongoing attempt to attract more Millennials to the brand.
Few articles and posts on the subject are free of ideological bias. Here is one of the relative few that are critical of the Burger King effort. Here is a much more typical explanation of the harm that ending net neutrality could cause.
What Was Net Neutrality?
The so-called net neutrality regulation was intended to ensure that all internet traffic was treated equally. Internet service providers were classified as telecommunications services. That made them common carriers who could not discriminate on the basis of how the broadband services were used. All all types of content as well as all websites and platforms had to be treated equally in terms of both service and fees. The term “open internet” is synonymous.
In practice net neutrality meant that ISPs cannot block or slow certain traffic. It cannot charge more to services like Netflix who want their services delivered faster—so-called ‘fast lanes.’ The practices prohibited by net neutrality are generally described as follows:
No Blocking. Simply put: A broadband provider can't block lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices.
No Throttling. The FCC created a separate rule that prohibits broadband providers from slowing down specific applications or services, a practice known as throttling. More to the point, the FCC said providers can't single out Internet traffic based on who sends it, where it's going, what the content happens to be or whether that content competes with the provider's business.
No Paid Prioritization. A broadband provider cannot accept fees for favored treatment. In short, the rules prohibit Internet fast lanes.
Note that the regulation specifically applied to broadband providers.
Who are the Large Internet Services Providers?
To understand the arguments pro and con net neutrality one must understand the market structure. The chart shows clearly the increasing market concentration and the results as of the end of 2017. Comcast slowly but steadily increased share from 2011 to 2017. Charter, on the other hand, shot from an also-ran to second in 2016 with the acquisitions of Time-Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Concentration was clearly ongoing during the period of net neutrality.
|ISP Market Share https://www.statista.com/statistics/217348/us-broadband-internet-susbcribers-by-cable-provider/|
One of the FCC arguments for revoking net neutrality is that it stifled innovation and repeal would encourage more competition in that market space. The data in the chart shows that concentration was ongoing, both before and during net neutrality. Is it inevitable? Will the repeal of net neutrality accelerate it? One thing is certain; it’s isn’t easy to establish successful new ISPs. A post on the subject from Ars Technica was subtitled, “Creating an ISP? You'll need millions of dollars, patience, and lots of lawyers.” That pretty much summaries the argument. There is potentially another way, described in the last section of this post.
What Does the End of Net Neutrality Mean?
The rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization are now gone. Regulation has been shifted from the FCC to the FTC which has always moved against bad actors, primarily violators of data privacy regulations. Proponents of net neutrality argue that the large telecoms are now free to make any changes to existing practices that they wish, as long as they notify users of what they are doing. Industry leaders and associations have released statements indicating that current practices will continue, but that could change.
Small business owners are especially concerned that a “pay to play” environment will emerge in which small firms cannot compete with the financial power of larger competitors.
ISPs do not have to block websites to make them less popular. They can place them behind paywalls like existing premium cable TV channels. One option would be to “bundle” popular sites like social media platforms into a paid offering. In October Congressman Ro Khanna tweeted an ad that shows packages of various internet services, from social media to music, available for subscription in Portugal. Medium, in a scathing critique of current internet practices, says that nothing prevents US ISPs from doing the same thing, with or without net neutrality.
Another concern is the potential sale of even more subscriber data to third-party data services. Again, that would only expand what is now occurring.
It is also possible that, without regulation, the ISPs could slow certain traffic for whatever reasons they choose. It appears they would have to notify users, but beyond that they can do whatever they like—or whatever the market permits them to do without serious backlash from users. And that’s true of all the actions they might take. That is what makes the concentration of the industry so troubling.
Are Local Networks the Answer?
Local networks have been under construction for a number of years, motivated by a number of factors chief among them network availability and speed. Fast Company has a good non-technical description:
Using affordable, off-the-shelf hardware and open-source software, hundreds of communities around the world are assembling small, independent, nonprofit wireless networks, often organized as so-called “mesh networks” for their weblike, decentralized design, in which each node–a phone, for instance, or a sophisticated wireless router–relays the connection onwards to the next node. This is the same principle used in mesh Wi-Fi routers for homes that are large or otherwise have problems getting signals from conventional routers to all areas of the home.
|Interactive Map https://muninetworks.org/communitymap|
So if you believe competition is the answer, there is a potential solution.
If you believe that restoring net neutrality is the answer, there are numerous efforts underway.
About the only sure thing is that this argument is not going to go away soon. To know whether the predictions might come true, one must wait and see.
See the infographic with additional data here.
States supporting net neutrality
End of net neutrality
Somewhat confusing but important Supreme Court decision supporting net neutrality